Violence within Ghazni’s Andar district has become increasingly savage in recent months. The roadside bomb which killed 19 people, mostly women, as they drove to a wedding on 27 October rightly caught the world’s headlines. Beyond that though, Andar has seen an escalation in killings and threats and even bans on giving last rights and burying the ‘enemy’. AAN guest writer, Emal Habib, looks at the further unraveling of last year’s Andar ‘uprising’ and says what we are now seeing is a conflict only just short of intra-communal violence.
The IED planted in Andar district on 27 October 2013 killed at least 19 people. Most of them were women, who rarely have a chance to get out of their homes except for special events such as family weddings. Enraged villagers and members of the Afghan Local Police (ALP) then beat a man to death whom they accused of having been the ‘Taleb’ who carried out the killing. Although nobody has taken responsibility for the bomb and the Taleban have officially denied any involvement, they – or their local supporters – do look the most likely culprits. Those among the local population who hold the Taleban responsible point to various supporting clues.
The wedding belonged to the family of an ALP member from Sahib Khan village which has been a hub of the Andar ‘popular uprising’-turned-ALP deployment (for the author’s earlier detailed reporting of this see here). While the bride was being brought from her village, escorted by a convoy of vans and cars, one of the vans was blown up. The bride’s car narrowly escaped the blast. Villagers said they caught a youngster running away from the site in panic. Safiullah, who according to a friend was 15 to 18 years old, was not known as an active Taleban fighter. However, he was considered to be sympathetic to the group and the ALP had captured him twice before for suspected Taleban-related activities. Villagers and ALP beat Safiullah to death.
Most of the Sahib Khan villagers and wedding guests firmly believe that Safiullah was a Taleb and that he had been caught red-handed with the bomb’s remote control in his hand. AAN did not manage to speak to anyone who said they had actually seen Safilullah running from the scene with the remote control in his hand, only those who cited others as witnesses. However, the belief that the ‘other side’ would want to kill female wedding guests (and it is hard to think of a killing with a stronger taboo) stems from the mounting aggressiveness and hatred perpetuated by both sides involved in this conflict, an enmity which has been partly fuelled by rival mullahs.
On the ALP side of the divide, everyone believes that a few weeks ago a mullah from the Taleban-controlled part of Andar district issued a fatwa declaring war on all residents of villages which support the ALP. (AAN could not find anyone who said they had actually heard the mullah’s fatwa being preached, although two neutral sources did testify that it had been made.) Consequently, the mullah was killed by the ALP because of his alleged fatwa. ALP and ‘aligned’ villagers whom this author spoke to believe the fatwa may have inspired Safiullah to target the Sahib Khan wedding party.
Other interviewees told AAN Safiullah had been a scapegoat, the target of a mob looking for instant revenge. They killed him because it was easy; he just happened to be present and from the Taleban’s ‘side’ of the community.
Whether Safiullah was the killer or not, the two incidents of murder show the widening mistrust and enmity within Andar society. This is a district where everyone is from the same Andar tribe, but there is now an increasing sense that “you are either with the Taleban or against them”. This applies even to those who are not involved in the fighting: everyone has come to be perceived as sympathetic to one side or the other and completely impartial individuals have become rare. Moreover, the nature of the violence in Andar is also changing.
Before the summer of last year, the conflict was largely fought between a group of Taleban with a local recruitment base and mainly foreign troops, with some Afghan government forces as well. While this could be termed as warfare limited to two specific groups fighting each other, the introduction in summer 2012 of the much-vaunted ‘popular anti-Taleban uprising’ (which as AAN detailed was hardly an uprising and anyway swiftly morphed into an ALP deployment) changed the nature of the strife. It pitted Andars against Andars. If the Taleban had been an external force without indigenous roots, they would have easily been swept out of the district by such a powerful local militia. However, the Taleban have established support among a considerable segment of the society and it is this entire segment of society which has found itself the enemy of the ALP. At the same time, the ALP also has local support and those within the community who are or are perceived to be ALP-aligned now find themselves the target of the Taleban. The result has been relentless bloodshed perpetrated by both sides and a polarisation within the Andar tribe.
According to rough estimations by local elders and notables, the number of fatalities in Andar since the inception of the anti-Taleban ‘uprising’ now stands at more than 300, far exceeding all the dead of the conflict between summer 2003 and summer 2012. More shockingly, the conflict has spread not only in numbers, but in the quality of the violence, with a widening of targets and tactics.
For example, hostile behaviour towards an enemy would normally end after his death. Human and religious respect for the deceased would entitle him to all the rights due to a dead person in the Afghan society. However, both sides in the fighting have resorted to banning funerals and burial services for those from the other side who have been ‘killed in action’. While this tactic in Andar has previously existed as an occasional post-death punishment, it is now being used more systematically by the Taleban and also, although less often, by the ALP. Violation of the ban or preaching against the other side has resulted in half a dozen mullahs being killed (AAN has the names and circumstances of the killing of two on the Taleban side and two on the ALP side with two other killings that we know about). The consequences of these threats and killings has been the virtual separation of cemeteries for the victims and ‘martyrs’ of the two sides. The Taleban do not allow the dead from the ALP to be buried in cemeteries located in areas under their control and vice versa.(1)
Even the most divided Afghan communities are bound together by events of mourning and marriage. However, the strife in Andar is threatening even these most basic of bonds. We now see that residents of one area are increasingly reluctant to marry from the population of the other area.
The most dangerous evolution of the strife would be a widening of what are perceived as legitimate targets, as for example, the alleged preaching of the Taleban-aligned mullah proclaiming that it was permissible to kill any resident of the ALP-supporting villages. The Taleban’s rulebook (layha) proscribes the killing of the ‘common people’, a term which would include women and non-combatants, not working for the government (i.e. it includes many whom international humanitarian law would consider civilian and therefore protected). It was on this basis that the Taleban denied they could have carried out the bombing of the wedding minibus, saying the attack would have broken their own rules. However, extremist ad-hoc opinions by local mullahs in areas of intense violence can, at the very least, influence individual Talebs’ actions to go far beyond the group’s official military rules.
Since the sowing of an armed local force to drive out the Taleban, violence in Andar has been descending into ever more chaotic warfare. The local youths who rose up to fight the Taleban are now stuck in an endless battle. The Taleban have become harsher towards their local enemies and their recruitment criteria have been loosened to allow in almost anyone who is ready to fight for them. The intended aim of the ‘uprising’ – to defeat the Taleban and bring law – is now a distant dream. Already, Andars say, the conflict is more cruel in extent and nature than at any point during the long years of the Afghan war. It is not yet full-blooded intra-communal violence because the majority of those battling are largely drawn only from the ranks of the unemployed illiterate youth. However, those youths do not feel bound by any outside authority or rule book and their way of fighting is entrenching hurt and anger. The fear is that the polarisation of the two sections of the community is shaping the conflict in ways that mean worse could be to come.
(1) Two other sources suggest that the targeting of mullahs, specifically those who bury ‘the enemy’ is not just a problem in Andar. UNAMA’s last report on the protection of civilians in conflict (July 2013) (see AAN reporting here) has a detailed section (pp 24-26) on threats and attacks (mainly by the Taleban) against religious figures and places of worship, including the killing of mullahs performing funerals.
Michael Semple also mentions how the families of fallen Taleban fighters in Paktia province hold fatehas, not in their home villages where they fear government intelligence, but in Pakistan’s tribal areas where friends and family can gather safely.
Afghan media recently reported an attack against the grave of a ‘reconciled’ Taleban commander in Jawzjan province.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020